Wednesday, December 2, 2015 by Elizabeth Pagano

Are digital billboards coming to Austin?

To date, Austin’s billboards have remained as static as the code that regulates them. But some are calling for changes that could allow digital billboards in the city.

On Monday, members of the City Council Public Safety Committee voted to send those changes to the consultants engaged in the CodeNEXT Land Development Code rewrite to get their opinions on the changes. They also voted to send the changes to the full Council for consideration. Both motions passed unanimously, with Council Member Leslie Pool absent.

Currently, the city draws a line between on- and off-premise signs. Off-premise signs, or billboards, have actually been prohibited in the city since 1983. Those that remain were there before the prohibition was established and are considered legally nonconforming under city code.

That status means that currently existing, nonconforming signs cannot be changed to make them less conforming. Specifically, changing the method or technology that conveys the message or increasing the illumination of existing billboards is not allowed, making it illegal to upgrade them to be digital.

The digital signs seen around town are, instead, considered “on premise” signs, and unlike billboards, they are loosely regulated. Proponents for the changes in sign rules argue that the prohibition on billboards and lax rules for on-premise signs will lead to uncontrolled, unregulated growth of on-premise signs.

Chris Johnson, who is with the city’s Development Services Department, explained that “the technology has advanced faster than the code,” which prohibits flashing lights but allows “electronically controlled changeable text.” He said that code dates back to signs that showed the temperature and time.

Russ Horton spoke on behalf of a group called Sign On Austin, which he said has formed with the end goal of allowing digital billboards in the city. The group, he explained, includes the Austin Police Association, the Austin Independent Business Alliance, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, Reagan Outdoor Advertising and the Davis Group. Horton pointed out that Austin is the only major city in Texas that prohibits the technology.

“Many of the digital signs that you see currently in the city of Austin – and they are growing every day – are unregulated, on-premise signs. They have full motion, they flash, they’re bright. You see them more and more every day,” said Horton.

In contrast, the off-premise digital regulations that have been proposed would not allow movement and would regulate brightness in line with state regulations. The proposed changes would also allow any billboard to be made digital – but at a cost. For every billboard that is converted, one other billboard must be removed, permanently.

Scenic Austin President Girard Kinney said that although the proposed changes remain in the early stages, his group wanted to “be part of a full and robust discussion” about them. “We’ve worked long and hard to actually eliminate billboards in Austin. We’re not doing very well with that,” said Kinney. “Electronic billboards are particularly objectionable, so we want to look very closely at what is being proposed.”

Horton presented a video that stated the group’s purpose: “to create commonsense regulations for a ‘smart’ network of digital outdoor advertising.” Members argue that replacing analog billboards with digital billboards is good for the local economy, will produce less light pollution than floodlights on traditional billboards and can help public safety, because digital billboards can be used to issue alerts and warnings.

Committee members spent most of their time discussing whether the changes should head to Council or go through the CodeNEXT process. They largely avoided discussion of the changes before them, although Council Member Ora Houston did comment on the Sign On Austin video. “The concern for me is that Austin is the tech city of the world, and here we are saying we can’t use digital signs,” said Houston. “I’m still unclear about why it’s a concern.”

The actual changes, explained Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, will require the coordination of a number of departments and “a fairly large effort” for which Council will have to provide direction. That is expected to happen sometime in January.

Photo by Pool Safety made available through a Creative Commons license.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

Austin City Council Public Safety Committee: A City Council committee that reviews safety issues, including code enforcement, disaster preparedness and criminal justice.

City of Austin Land Development Code: The city's Land Development Code regulates building and development in the city of Austin. As part of the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan, the code is currently undergoing a rewrite in what is called the "CodeNEXT." That process is expected to be completed in 2016.

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